This Week in Literary History: Feb. 8-14

Recognizing the birthdays of Jacqueline Woodson, Judy Blume, and more

How the U.S. Government Tried to Undermine the U.S.S.R. By Publishing Doctor Zhivago

By Christine Kingery

How do you turn down the Nobel Prize for literature? The Swedish Academy bestowed the award upon Boris Pasternak, author of books such as Doctor Zhivago, in 1958. For Pasternak, the Nobel was the ultimate recognition—as an artist, humanitarian, and Russian. But for his country, the Prize didn't mean glory; for the Soviet Union, the award meant sedition, an embrace of Western values over the importance of nation and communism. 

Pasternak was on the wrong side of the political regime. At the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, he supported the new government's ideals and goals. The difference was—and this was a big deal—he didn't think that individuals should need to forgo their rights over the good of the State. It was that dissident ideology that put Pasternak on the outs with the Kremlin. 

Pasternak wrote Doctor Zhivago over several decades, completing it in 1956. He tried to publish the book in Russia in a newspaper named Novy Mir. But the publisher, controlled by the Kremlin, decided that some passages were anti-Soviet and denied publication. 

At the same time, countries worldwide noticed that not many Soviet writings were leaving the country, and the international literary movement began actively seeking out Russian literature. In 1956, an Italian journalist named Sergio D'Angelo traveled to Russia, and while there, D'Angelo discovered a large public fervor for the poet Boris Pasternak. Learning of Doctor Zhivago's existence, D'Angelo asked Pasternak if a publisher in Italy could print the work. Stunned, Pasternak handed over the manuscript. 

The Kremlin was not pleased. 

In the meantime, the United States was looking to bring down the Soviet Union and put a crack in the U.S.S.R.'s political veneer. The C.I.A. saw Pasternak and its anti-Soviet sentiments as the way to advance this mission. In C.I.A. documents declassified in 2014, a file dated Dec. 12, 1957, stated, "Dr. Zhivago should be published in a maximum number of foreign editions, for maximum free world discussion and acclaim and consideration for such honor as the Nobel Prize." 

Although the letter doesn't say that the C.I.A. went to the Nobel committee to influence them to award the prize to Pasternak, the letter certainly indicates that the C.I.A. had the idea in mind.

The C.I.A. printed 355 copies of Doctor Zhivago at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The agency distributed them at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958.

The C.I.A.'s Soviet Russia Division ran the operation, sanctioned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Operations Coordinating Board, which reported to the National Security Council. The bizarre Pasternak conspiracy went all the way to the top of the U.S. government.

The Swedish Academy knew that awarding Pasternak the Prize would anger the Soviet regime, potentially endangering Pasternak himself. After all, the book wasn't even being distributed or printed within Russia's land borders. And so the Academy was careful in the way they worded the award, saying that Pasternak received the Nobel Prize "for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition."

The Kremlin's response was brutal, and the government doubled down on their work to discredit Pasternak and bully him into turning down the Prize. One magazine called Doctor Zhivago "a Literary Weed" saying, "if you compare Pasternak to a pig, a pig would not do what he did, because a pig never s--- where it eats." A union representative called Pasternak a "literary whore, hired and kept in America's anti-Soviet brothel." 

The Soviet government told Pasternak that if he traveled to Stockholm to collect the Nobel, he could never return to the Soviet Union. The government had already arrested his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, a few years earlier, imprisoning her in the Gulag for five years on charges of being "an accomplice to the spy." (Olga was the inspiration behind Doctor Zhivago's Lara.) 

Pasternak feared for the safety of his loved ones as well as for himself. He sent a frantic letter to Premier Nikita Krushchev begging for leniency. "Leaving the motherland will equal death for me," Pasternak wrote. "I am tied to Russia by birth, by life, and work."

The Nobel Prize committee awarded Pasternak the Prize on Oct. 23, 1958. Six days later, the writer turned down the award.

Pasternak died two years after declining to accept the Nobel Prize. His lover, Ivinskaya, was imprisoned a second time, accused of being Pasternak's link with Western publishers and receiving payment for Doctor Zhivago. She served four years of an eight-year sentence. 

Doctor Zhivago was finally published in Russia in 1988. In Dec. 1989, Boris's son, Yevgenji Pasternak, traveled to Stockholm to collect his father's Nobel Prize.

Boris Pasternak

  • Born on Feb. 10, 1890, in Moscow

  • Died on May 30, 1960, in Peredelkino, Russia

Jacqueline Woodson Went From Writing on Paper Bags to Making Books

By Emily Quiles

“My sister taught me how to write my name when I was about three. I remember writing my whole name: Jacqueline Amanda Woodson,” Woodson told Jennifer Brown for Publishers Weekly. “I just loved the power of being able to put a letter on the page and that letter meaning something.”

It was 1966 in Columbus, Ohio, when putting pencil to paper first sparked Woodson’s curiosity for words. “Not so much telling stories but actually having the tools with which to create a landscape of words,” Woodson said. Woodson started decorating paper bags, her shoes, and denim binders with words she discovered. Those words became tiny tales, penciled into notebook margins and chalked onto the neighborhood’s sidewalks.

“I remember my uncle catching me writing my name in graffiti on the side of a building,” Woodson’s biography reads on her website.

Woodson liked to practice writing song lyrics, from records and TV commercials, into her notebook. “I would sit there,” she told NPR’s Fresh Air host, Terry Gross, “and after the commercial went off - still writing the words.” Some of the commercials included, Good and Plenty’s candy “Choo Choo Charlie,” Coors Light’s “Rocky Mountain High - John Denver,” and “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”

“At that time, with records, you’d have to take the needle off and move it back to the beginning of the record,” continued Woodson. “It wasn’t like you had a pause button or anything.” Following these steps, a young Woodson sat, listened, and wrote down lyrics from The Jackson 5 and Otis Redding.

While Woodson was curious about words, she read them slowly. On the other hand, her sister could speed through novels. “Here I was, reading the same book very slowly, slowly coming to understand it,” Woodson told Gross. But Wodson doesn’t describe her learning difficulties as a disorder or even a problem. 

“The language settled in me much deeper than it settled into people who just can read something once and absorb what they absorb of it,” Woodson said. “I feel like what I was absorbing was not by any means superficial.”

Despite this, Woodson’s teachers wrote on her report cards that she could do better at school if she tried. “I think they just didn’t understand I was doing something differently than how one was supposed to do it at that time,” Woodson said.

While she struggled in school, Woodson excelled in reading comprehension. “From a really young age, I was reading like a writer,” Woodson said. “I was reading for this deep understanding of the literature not simply to hear the story but to understand how the author got the story on the page.” 

Woodson continued to deconstruct words on paper, and she started to formulate her own stories.

In fifth grade, a teacher said to Woodson, “This is really good,” after reading a story she wrote. The teacher’s four-letter phrase became and remain words of encouragement for Woodson. 

As she entered high school, Woodson debated becoming a teacher, lawyer, or hairdresser. Then a teacher told Woodson’s class, “When you choose a career, choose something that you feel passionate about, because you’re going to be doing it for the rest of your life.” 

“That moment it hit me that [writing] was the thing I loved doing more than anything,” Woodson recalled.

Nearly 40 years later, Woodson is now a nationally acclaimed writer, best known for Miracle’s Boys, and her Newbery Honor-winning books Brown Girl Dreaming, After Tupac and D Foster, Feathers, and Show Way. Praised and critiqued for tackling taboo topics for young readers on interracial couples, teenage pregnancy, and sexuality, Woodson crafts realistic characters searching for themselves rather than social justice.

“The lesson I’ve learned for writing for kids is that you can’t be didactic,” Woodson told NPR’s art correspondent, Lynn Neary. “There are things that I want to say, questions that I want to ask, conversations that I want to have on the page, and I don’t want to have it feel like I am trying to teach somebody something because I am not. I am writing to learn myself.”

Jacqueline Woodson

  • Born on Feb. 12, 1963, in Columbus, Ohio

‘Nobody Writes Unless They Have To’: Judy Blume On Writing Compulsion

By Corinne Weaver

Award-winning author Judy Blume considers writing a compulsion. “The thing is that nobody writes unless they have to,” she told NPR in an interview. If that’s the case, then Blume’s 25 books had to be written. Blume’s work has influenced and molded national dialogue in many different ways. 

Despite her success, Blume describes her writing process as a struggle. “The process for me, whether it’s writing for very young children or middle graders or teens or an adult audience—the process is exactly the same, and it is always impossibly difficult and painful,” Blume admitted. Whenever she finished writing a book, Blume would always say she would never write again. 

Some of the difficulties she faced after a book was published might explain why Blume found the process so unforgiving. Blume’s books started much controversy in schools and libraries in the 1980s because they were young adult books that touched on mature themes. 

In an essay Blume wrote on censorship, she opined, “Censors don’t want children exposed to ideas different from their own. If every individual with an agenda had his/her way, the shelves in the school library would be close to empty.” According to Blume, censorship threatened the unwritten books, which meant that children would lose more opportunities to learn and grow. 

The controversy didn’t stop Blume from writing, however. “I don’t know that you become a writer: you just are. I always had stories; they were always there inside my head. I never told anyone, but they were there,” Blume said. 

Almost as if bowing to a sort of literary manifest destiny, the books came. Many have been affected by Blume’s young adult fiction, such as Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. One critic wrote in The New York Times about Blume, “When I got to college, there was no author, except Shakespeare, whom more of my peers had read.” 

Blume’s work speaks to children who need a dose of realism and want adults to talk to them without sugarcoating the truth. Topics like religion, sexuality, gender, equality, and personal relationships played roles in her stories. 

“All through supper I thought about how I was going to tell my mother I wanted to wear a bra. I wondered why she hadn’t ever asked me if I wanted one, since she knew so much about being a girl,” says Margaret in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. In a way, Blume was right. Her stories had to be told to help children understand at least some of the complexities of growing up.

Judy Blume

  • Born on Feb. 12, 1938, in Elizabeth, N.J.


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Boris Pasternak

Jacqueline Woodson

Judy Blume

Notable Literary Births & Events for Feb. 8-14

Feb. 8

  • Elizabeth Bishop

  • Neal Cassady

  • John Grisham

  • Jules Verne

  • Henry Roth

  • U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes begins publishing (1861)

Feb. 9

  • George Ade

  • Brendan Behan

  • Thomas Bernhard

  • J.M. Coetzee

  • Anthony Hope

  • Amy Lowell

  • Natsume Sōseki

  • James Stephens

  • Alice Walker

  • Vasily Zhukovsky

Feb. 10

  • E. L. Konigsburg

  • Boris Pasternak

  • Howard Spring

  • Giuseppe Ungaretti

Feb. 11

  • Lydia Maria Child

  • Elsa Beskow

  • Patrick Leigh Fermor

  • Daniel F. Galouye

  • Else Lasker-Schüler

  • Sidney Sheldon

  • Mo Willems

  • Jane Yolen

Feb. 12

  • Judy Blume

  • Juanita Coulson

  • S. Foster Damon

  • Charles Darwin

  • R. F. Delderfield

  • Axel Jensen

  • George Meredith

  • Joan Murray

  • Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer

  • Janwillem van de Wetering

  • Jacqueline Woodson

Feb. 13

  • Friedrich Christian Delius

  • Eleanor Farjeon

  • Leo Frankowski

  • Rufus Wilmot Griswold

  • Peter Heller

  • Ivan Krylov

  • Kate Roberts

  • Georges Simenon

  • William Sleator

Feb. 14

  • Frederick Douglass

  • Frank Harris

  • A. M. Klein

  • Israel Zangwill

  • "The Importance of Being Earnest" performed for the first time (1895)

  • Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn expelled from U.S.S.R. (1974)

  • Zora Neale Hurston’s and Langston Hughes’s play "Mule Bone" opens in New York (1991)